Leadership Lessons from Commissioner James O’Neill

An Insight from the 2019 Public Safety Summit

Part of a Series

This Insight is taken from the 2019 Public Safety Summit.

Key Takeaways

  1. Prioritize public perception: O’Neill uses his early experience as a transit officer to reinforce the importance of public perception and relationships to effective policing.
  2. Invest in the future: O’Neill works to make lasting change by ensuring that the principles of neighborhood policing are introduced and reinforced at the Police Academy.
  3. Embrace technology: O’Neill makes use of new tools like drones and algorithms, but not as a replacement for building trust with residents.

When James O’Neill became the Police Commissioner of New York City in 2016, the department was in the midst of significant change. During the previous summer, the NYPD launched a neighborhood policing pilot program in four precincts. The goal was to test strategies for building trusting relationships between residents and police with the hope of further reducing crime and police-involved shootings. Some of these strategies proved successful, and the NYPD worked to expand the program, but there was plenty of resistance. It was up to O’Neill to make the case for neighborhood policing and lead the Department toward making necessary changes in its policing philosophy and practices.

“You could have the best technology in the world, [but] unless those cops have a connection to the people where they’re working, it’s not going to be a force multiplier,”
James O'Neill
Commissioner, New York Police Department

Throughout it all, O’Neill has striven to make sure the mission remains clear and simple. When he speaks publicly, he often talks about his early experiences as a transit cop on train patrol in the eighties. This was during a time when crime was particularly high in New York City, and he says that he can still the remember the look of relief on people’s faces whenever he stepped into a train car. In doing so, he makes the case for a different outlook on policing, one that prioritizes public perception and relationships over counting arrests. “If we can somehow relieve that tension, relieve that pressure between the police and the community, build on relationships, your job is going to be safer,” he tells officers. “It might not be easier, but it’s going to be safer.”

O’Neill recognizes that this transition requires long-term commitment. Not everyone is convinced of the merits of neighborhood policing, and sometimes there is little he can do to change their minds. For that reason, O’Neill works to ensure that the message gets through at the Police Academy, so that the newest generation of officers enter the workforce with the right mindset. “For the new people coming out of the academy it is easier,” he says. “Now this is what they do; what they understand is neighborhood policing.”

And neighborhood policing is not the only change that the NYPD has had to adjust to. Like many departments, the NYPD is learning to use new technology like drones and predictive algorithms to police more effectively. Again, though, O’Neill stresses that technology is a means to an end, and does not itself signal progress. “You could have the best technology in the world, [but] unless those cops have a connection to the people where they’re working, it’s not going to be a force multiplier,” he says. Some new tools like the Sentiment Meter, which collects localized data about residents’ perception of the police, may help to evaluate and improve that connection.

O’Neill has learned to embrace technology, but not for its own sake. He knows when to fight resistance and when to be patient. Above all, he works to ensure that the mission of neighborhood policing and the metrics of its success are clear to everyone. He has reason to believe that it is paying off. “We see the numbers,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to 2014. I don’t think any of us want to do that. Even when I think about it, it just cuts me in half. I want to know how people feel and how to make that change.”

“If we can somehow relieve that tension, relieve that pressure between the police and the community, build on relationships, your job is going to be safer. It might not be easier, but it's going to be safer."
James O'Neill
Commissioner, New York Police Department

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